The Problem of Coordinating Arms in WW2
“To a considerable degree, war experience indicates that unsatisfactory command and control of forces results from poor organization of communications work and, first and foremost, from ignoring radio communications as the most effective means of communication.” Infantry, tanks, assault guns, air support, naval support, communications, supplies, artillery, rockets and a whole host of other different arms and equipment that all need to work together in order to beat the enemy. And yet, sometimes - actually a lot of times - this went wrong. So today, we’re going to explore the coordination, and failure of coordination, of arms during the Second World War. Because, my Patreon, Phil asked this question - Hi TIK. I was thinking that, instead of focusing on a specific battle, it would be interesting to compare and contrast allied vs. axis ability to coordinate attacks. My
son (USMC) just finished a deployment with the 22nd MEU where he acted as the unit operations officer. I've learned about the huge effort needed, even today, to coordinate naval, ground, and air assets to accomplish even transient tactical objectives. Anyway, just a thought. Maybe Military History Visualized is a more appropriate channel. Open to your thoughts! I’ll be honest, I’ve delayed answering this question for several months, because I can find plenty of examples of when there’s a failure of coordination, but finding out exactly how they coordinated in the first place has been a bit of a struggle. So, my answer may be slanted towards failure, rather than how they did it, and apologies for the delay. Plus, it seems that an OFFICIAL coordination of arms didn’t happen until after 1945, at least according to the book “Toward Combined Arms Warfare” by Jonathan House - yes, the guy who works a lot with David Glantz. Really recommended if you want to do some follow-up reading.
He lists several things that are required for Combined Arms warfare (which is essentially another way of saying a ‘coordination’ of attacks). The first thing we need to consider when talking about coordination and cooperation between different arms is interservice rivalry. It’s alright saying that tanks and planes and ships should cooperate and coordinate together, but when there’s jealousy or rivalry between the different branches of the military, then things become problematic, as you’ll see. In both Germany and in Britain, prior to the war and during it, there was a tug of war between the army, navy and the air force. And it was over scarce resources that have alternative uses, and operational priorities. “While struggling to fulfil its own ambitious expansion programmes, the German Army was in constant competition with the other branches of the armed services over the allocation of industrial and raw material resources.”
I’ve touched upon this in last week’s video, and I’ll be talking about it again in the future, how Hitler believed that the army was a threat to his hold on power. So this is why he favoured the Luftwaffe, pouring in tons of resources into that newer branch. “...the portion assigned to the expansion of the Luftwaffe would consistently average between 30-40 percent of the entire defence budget throughout the period of 1934-1939, well ahead of proportion spent by its later adversaries on their air forces.” The expansion of the Kriegsmarine was then given absolute priority by Hitler over all other services - and all other industrial projects in the Reich - on the 27th of January 1939. This was because he wanted to challenge Britain’s dominance of the seas… further evidence that he expected war with Britain at some point, by the way.
“Throughout the war, the U.S. Army Air Forces (AAF) operated almost independently from the other elements of the Army... AAF leaders believed strongly in the value of strategic bombing. This belief only increased their tendency to
distance themselves from the ground arms. The result was near disaster on the battlefield, retrieved only by the common sense of tactical commanders on the spot.” But this tug of war even extended right down to sub-units within each branch.
The British regimental system was problematic because, on the one hand it made the men passionate about the regiment they served, but on the other hand it also discouraged changes and interservice cooperation. As a result, the infantry and tanks were reluctant to cooperate with the RAF - itself unwilling to help the army because that was seen as a violation of RAF doctrine. As another example, Heinz Guderian gives this account - “Our limited resources in the sphere of motorisation were further squandered owing to various organisational errors committed by other arms of the service. For example, the Chief of the General Army Office, General Fromm, ordered that the 14th (anti-tank) Company of all Infantry Regiments be motorised. When I maintained that these companies,
since they would be working with foot soldiers, would do better to remain horse-drawn, he replied ‘The infantry’s got to have a few cars too’. My request that, instead of the 14th Companies, the Heavy Artillery Battalions be motorized was turned down. The heavy guns remained horse-drawn, with unfortunate results during the war, particularly in Russia.” In 1935, all anti-aircraft units in the German Army were placed under Luftwaffe command and control, effectively stripping the army of its flak weapons. This is why most German Army divisions didn’t have anti-aircraft guns. And if they did, like
the 24th Panzer Division at Stalingrad, then their anti-aircraft battalion was a Luftwaffe Battalion, explaining why it was numbered differently from their other divisional battalions. In 24th Panzer Division, their pionier battalion was numbered 40; their panzerjäger battalion was numbered 40; but their flak battalion was numbered 602. And it wasn’t actually part of the division, but attached to it, having only arrived on the 19th of August 1942. The famous photo of the Luftwaffe soldiers walking through the streets of Minina in Stalingrad is a great example of this. They were from the 3rd Battery of the 25th
Anti-Aircraft Regiment that was attached to 48th Panzer Corps’ 94th Infantry Division. Sturmgeschütz units - though fighting with front-line infantry and panzers - were technically part of the artillery branch of the German Army. And artillery units were technically attached to German divisions - not part of them. “...the divisional artillery was commanded by an Artillerieführer (Arfu), who was the divisional commander’s adviser on artillery matters.”
This is perhaps why small artillery guns were provided to the infantry in the German Army to allow them to control their own guns. A classic example is the 7.5cm light infantry gun number 18. German anti-tank guns were controlled by the army, while the British decided to man them with artillerymen. So, we can imagine that interservice rivalry, and different ranks, training regimes, and priorities, would (and, in fact, did) result in problems in the field when it came to coordinating mission orientated actions. A great example of this is Richtofen during the Stalingrad campaign, who just complains over and over about how bad the army is compared to his glorious Luftwaffe, and gets into arguments with the generals. But, at least in the case of the ground troops, cooperation between infantry, tanks and StuGs was encouraged through the use of doctrinal manuals, which were passed on to the troops.
Guderian’s book ‘Actung Panzer!’ came out in 1937 and outlined what was needed - “What we desire is a modern and fast moving force of infantry, possessing strong fire power, and specially equipped, organised and trained in co-operation with tanks.” What allowed infantry elements to coordinate and cooperate with tanks and assault guns was proper communications equipment. Without a means to speak with other tanks, or other nearby units, an attack or defence would break down fast. And if you think about this in infantry-terms. A commander can shout to other members of his platoon, or send a runner to the rest of the company to deliver instructions. But beyond that, you need better ways of communicating.
If you’re out in the middle of a field with a bunch of infantry, the enemy’s ahead of you, and you’re under fire. Okay, you may have a tank or two nearby helping you out, but how are you going to talk to the tank commander? How are you going to call in that artillery support, or that air strike you really need? You might say - by radio! Well, unfortunately, that’s not how it went. The US Army didn’t have enough radios to equip its units until 1944, and other armies were even worse off. The Soviet Red Army may as well not have bothered. On the eve of war - “The General Staff and prospective wartime fronts lacked 65 percent of their authorized radios, field armies and corps were short 89 percent of their radios, and divisions, regiments, and battalions lacked 38, 23, and 42 percent of their radios, respectively. Worse still, 75 percent of the radios within the front commands were obsolete, as were 22, 89, and 63 percent of the radios within field armies, divisions, and regiments. When these commands relied heavily on vehicle couriers and the postal service to communicate, they found vehicles and motorcycles also in short supply and the postal service far too untimely.”
Probably wasn’t as bad as the Australian Postal Service though… When Barbarossa started the Germans annihilated the Red Army, partly because Soviet communications were non-existent, and what little there was got smashed in the opening days by the Luftwaffe and panzer formations which bombed or overran them. What few radios and other equipment they actually had were lost, making the situation even worse for the Red Army later on. Throughout 1941 and 1942, Red Army communications could be described as nothing short of a disaster, and the command and coordination of Red Army units - from the lowest, all the way to the top - suffered massively as a result. It was only in 1943 that the Red Army managed to put radios
into some of their battalions - and nowhere near all of them. So before the end of 1943, at best, only regiments and above had radios - and again, not always. This is really where British Lend-Lease came in during the early part of the war - because Britain was a primary producer, and leader, in radio communications equipment. And by 1945, 88% of all the Red Army’s communications equipment came from Lend-Lease - with the British, United States, and Canada, really helping to equip the Red Army.
But even the Western Allies were short of radios, as were the Axis. So tanks and other vehicles though in the US, British, Soviet and German Armies used a three flag system of yellow, green and red to communicate with each other. But flags were often discarded because they attracted bullets and bombs. Therefore hand signals were usually used instead. The problem with flags or hand signals (apart from the fact that they’re only good for subunit communication) is that they don’t work at night, in the rain, or in dirt, smoke, or fog, and can lead to miscommunications. Worse, if the observer fails to see them, you’re out of luck. In episode 2 of my Battlestorm Stalingrad series, we saw how the 158th Heavy Tank Brigade had arrived and drove straight through Lebedenko’s 55th Tank Brigade in their attack towards the German lines. Lebedenko got down from his tank and waved for them to stop, but the KV-1 tanks ignored him and rolled right into the German anti-tank guns, where 28 KVs were wiped out. Lebedenko’s
hand waving didn’t stop them. And it’s clear that Lebedenko didn’t have a radio. Or, if he did, he couldn’t communicate with them because they probably didn’t have a radio themselves. And even if they did, they were a separate unit, and so to communicate to them, he would have had to call the army command first. You see, the way communications worked was that a battalion could communicate with a neighbouring battalion of the same regiment. But, if they wanted to communicate with another battalion from a different regiment, they would have to contact their regiment first, who would contact the next regiment, who would contact the battalion. But that’s only if they were in the same division.
If there were two neighbouring battalions from two different divisions, one battalion would call the regiment, then the division, who would contact the other division, who’d tell their regiment, and finally the regiment would tell their battalion. You can imagine that this wasn’t particularly efficient, and was very time intensive. But if it wasn’t done this way, then the centralized command and coordination of the units could collapse. So part of the reason
armies had a hierarchy of command was because this allowed better coordination within them. There were exceptions to the rule though. Both the British and the United States developed a system where reports would be sent from the lower units to the top by bypassing those in-between.
But it was realized that this system wasn’t only good at sending reports to the top, but that it could be used to send orders from the top to the bottom. And when this happened, it allowed senior commanders to react quicker to developing situations - although middle-management commanders may have felt left out. This organizational communication problem is perhaps why Kampfgruppen - or Battlegroups - gave the Germans a massive tactical advantage, because they were basically temporary units that could be created on the fly, that bypassed the traditional chain of command, but still retained command and control. So you can imagine that a bunch of battalions (maybe
even from two or more different divisions) could be given a leader and then a task. Then the subunits could just ask the leader for instructions, rather than going up several steps and then down again in the hierarchy. It would make for much more efficient communication, but still a decent level of organisation. If you haven’t seen my video on Kampfgruppen, you should. Another advantage that the Germans had was that, right from the 1800s, they encouraged their officers to go forwards and make decisions. (I know, a radical concept. But in contrast to the British, it was.) This decentralized command
and control allowed a lot more flexibility in the field. The problem was that, as the war progressed (and especially after the tide of war had turned), Hitler demanded more centralised control. This was a political move more than a military concept, but it ultimately took away the flexibility within the system. But the idea of generals going forwards to observe, or in a lot of cases, actually get involved in the combat, resulted in them getting pinned down, or reduced the effectiveness of subordinate commanders because they would defer to the senior general. Of course, even if there was enough radio equipment, and even if there was a decent organisational structure, you still had to be careful that the enemy wouldn’t either listen in, or even disrupt your communications.
“Our radio communication was very poor, and our officers were reluctant to use it, as the Germans intercepted our signals… They could create radio interference to stop us communicating - or actually break in to our communications to speak to us directly, mocking us with their technological superiority, suddenly declaring: ‘Russ - stop talking now!’ ” “Violating every rule of telephone communications, we have conducted operational conversations openly naming units, formations, their missions and dispositions, and the names and ranks of commanders. In the process, top secret information has fallen into enemy hands.” The British, who had more radios than the Soviets but a shortage of cipher staff, knew that the Germans were listening to their conversations. They had at least enough sense to mask their speech with ‘veiled’ conversations. But the Germans soon realized who they were talking about. “Hullo SABO, JUMO calling. Don’t worry about Bob. He can look after himself. JUMO to SABO off.”
In fact, Rommel only had one ‘Horch’ Company that intercepted British communications, but it was so effective that he often had a complete picture of where the British units were. “When the British finally became aware of this unit’s activities in July 1942, an Australian battalion raided and captured the company. German replacements could not replace the expertise of the analysts lost in that company and thus had more difficulty detecting later British deception operations.” And radios suffered other problems too. The British at Arnhem famously had radio issues.
But the main problem was that radios were in their infancy. The Second World War was the first war where units like battalions and regiments had significant numbers of radios. Yet the radios were temperamental to say the least. Long range radios (known as the AM type) had to be set up in place, and couldn’t be moved because it would break communications. Worse, mounting
them on vehicles proved problematic because their electronics would interfere with their signals, so these factors rendered them a bad piece of kit for rapid attacks. FM type radios were often smaller and compact, often being called “handie-talkies”. But they were only capable of line-of-sight communications. Any hills in the way would block the radio. “When several different signals were being transmitted on one band FM radios could only pick up the strongest and the others were blocked.”
They also had a limited range. The famous ‘walkie-talkie’ radio (the US SCR-300) only had a range of about 3 miles. Plus their batteries would run out pretty quickly. The SCR-536 ‘handy-talkie’ only had a range of one-mile.
The US Marine Corps didn’t bother to issue radio sets below battalion level, at least at first, for several reasons. The radios were bad anyway, the jungle terrain limited their range by as much as 60%, their batteries would deplete quicker in the heat, and more issues besides this. The Japanese didn’t have FM radios, only AM, and their sets were almost entirely obsolete anyway. And when the British tried putting radios in their platoons during 1943, they found that the radio operators would be made priority targets by the enemy. The bulky sets would attract fire, which was bad, because the platoon leader would be next to the radio operator in order to communicate with the higher ups. So, they would both become suppressed if they stuck together. If, however, the platoon leader decided to actually lead his platoon in combat, which was his actual task, then he wouldn’t be able to communicate with his superiors, making the need for a radio pointless. So, from 1944, British platoons often didn’t use radios,
and radios were reserved for company level and up. “[For US troops in Normandy] ...the radios issued to infantry, tank, and fighter aircraft units had incompatible frequencies, making communication among the arms impossible. Even when the infantry commander was riding on the outside of a tank or standing next to it, the noise of the tank engine made it difficult for the infantry and tank commanders to communicate face-to-face.” Signalmen therefore installed improvised telephones on the outside of the tanks. For
these reasons, and more, radios weren’t the only signals equipment available, and all armies used a variety of systems during the war. “...radios, field telephones, telegraph, teletype, pyrotechnic signal flares, colored smoke signals, signal flags, ground-air signal panels, heliographs, signal lamps, messengers (human or animal), and more.”
Telephones were used by all sides, and did things radios couldn’t do. For one, they provided decent two-way communication without having to wait for one speaker to stop before the other spoke. And the line was generally very stable, even in harsh weather conditions. The disadvantage was that the enemy could drive two stakes into the ground and listen in with their own telephone, so they may or may not be secure. It also took time to set up the lines,
so they were better for defence than offence. And there was also a shortage of copper wire, especially for the Axis, so both sides used to collect the enemy’s wires. Artillery, bombs and enemy patrols would cut the lines. But sometimes their own side would cut their own lines, such as during Operation Crusader, when the 8th Army headquarters staff cut their own telephone lines to prevent General Cunningham from issuing orders to retreat.
During Crusader, communication between the British ground forces and the RAF was lacking. The British had radios, and had RAF bombers waiting for the call to action, and yet the call never came. And when it did, the results weren’t always positive. British bombers and Stukas often either stayed out of the fight during Operation Crusader, scared that their bombs would hit their own men, or proceeded to bomb their own troops. In fact, in both Crusader and Stalingrad, and probably many other battles too, the lines were so entwined that it wasn’t possible to call for air support at all, or if they did, then friendly-fire incidents would happen (and I’ll be mentioning some of those in upcoming Stalingrad episodes). In both instances, what they decided to do was draw a line on the map and say ‘you can bomb anything beyond this line’. “Another of the difficulties of the Air Force in helping the [British] Army was that the ‘bomb-line’, or line beyond which anything seen might be attacked, was not easy to define in practice, for instead of there being a clearly defined front the forces of the two sides were often biting each other’s flanks or tail. Aircraft were rarely able
to join in a swaying fight between the armoured forces, and even on the fringe of such a fight they could not always tell friend from foe. The Army was loath to paint large distinguishing marks on its vehicles, though it was later forced to follow the enemy’s lead in this respect.” Flares and smoke were often used to say ‘friendly troops here’. The problem was that the enemy could just deploy the same colour smoke or flares to confuse the pilots. Again, this happened to 24th Panzer Division on a few occasions, such as on the 4th of September 1942, when they fired yellow flares into the sky to signal where they were, and the Soviets did the same, resulting in several men being wounded and two killed. Another occured on the 15th of September.
The same problem applied with the artillery at Stalingrad. Wüster’s artillery battery could only really shell the Soviet rear areas, or specific targets where German troops weren’t close to. “We then relocated our battery closer to the edge of the city in order to shell the Russian rear areas more easily. We were supported by Stukas but unfortunately they did not always only hit the enemy in the maze of streets and vague front-lines. This was also the main reason why I could not direct our guns at individual buildings.
A minimum safe distance of 200 metres had to be kept because of straying shells.” Both artillery and air force observers and liaison officers were essential to ensure proper cooperation between the various arms. These would create forward observation posts - like Wüster did - or ‘Fire Direction Centers’ or FDCs in the case of the United States.
The reason why this was necessary was because, unlike in the First World War where the lines were static and you could create detailed pre-planned artillery bombardments, the lines in the Second World War were often more fluid, and so it was difficult to concentrate massive firepower on ‘unexpected’ targets. “...in both Spain and Poland a very small number of air liaison detachments were attached to the infantry corps and armored division headquarters making the main attack. These detachments could pass air-support requests directly to the Luftwaffe and could monitor in-flight reconnaissance reports.” During the Spanish Civil War, cooperation between the various assets was learned the hard way… except by the Soviets. In Spain, Soviet tanks tended to run ahead of their infantry… and then get annihilated… which is exactly what happened numerous times outside Stalingrad as I’ve shown in the Stalingrad series. In fact, it’s not really until Operation Uranus in late 1942 that this problem is overcome
(but I’m not going to talk about that until we get to it in the Stalingrad series). For the Germans, the advance into Poland showed that while they had managed to get tanks and infantry to cooperate, they hadn’t got artillery or air support to cooperate with them. And this problem wouldn’t be overcome until France. The British on the other hand only started to seriously consider infantry and tank cooperation after the Fall of France, and I would argue that they didn’t get this right until very late in the North African Campaign. Love him or hate him, it was Montgomery who not only trained the units in Britain to coordinate their actions, but also put that training into practice at El Alamein. In fact, he basically forced the tanks
and infantry to cooperate, even though his subordinates were reluctant to do so. And - “Despite the efforts of many British armored theorists, close air support doctrine was not really developed in Britain until 1942.” “Bernard Montgomery developed an entire network of liaison officers and collected ground and air headquarters to provide such support while still leaving much independence to the RAF.” The Americans tried to have a system where different ‘additional’ non-divisional elements, say tank-destroyers or engineers, could be moved from one division to another in order to supplement a division on the offensive.
“Corps and field army commanders who followed doctrine by shifting these nondivisional units from division to division according to the situation found that they could maximize the use of such elements only at the cost of much confusion and inefficiency. Attachment to a different division meant dealing with a different set of procedures and personalities before the attached units could mesh smoothly with that division. Once such a smooth relationship was established, the division was reluctant to release its attachments as ordered.” In fact, many attached tank, engineer, tank-destroyer, anti-aircraft, and other elements remained attached to US divisions for months at a time because of this issue. The good news though was that at least these different elements were cooperating together.
And a lot of the issues I’ve mentioned in this video regarding command and communication, as well as coordination of the various arms, kept coming up even in the later part of the war. In 1942, the US 32nd Division assaulted Japanese bunkers without sufficient fire support, having failed to properly coordinate artillery and air assets. So bad was this mistake that they were attacked by their own air force on a weekly basis - and they still didn’t bother to communicate with the air force. The lesson of neglecting to cooperate with the other arms was learned the hard way. A similar thing happened in Normandy, because a lot of US units hadn’t seen combat before, and had also neglected their training when it came to cooperating and coordinating their infantry and tank actions. And this is why I said at the beginning that it really wasn’t until after the war that many of these armies got their acts together. Coordination
between the various arms was done on almost a casual basis for most of the war - which is perhaps why I’ve not found much on this particular subject, because cooperation wasn’t formalized until after 1945. Therefore, I’m going to leave you with this quote from Jonathan House - again, his book is decent and goes into a lot of other things too - so be sure to check it out. Here’s what House has to say in conclusion about combined arms warfare during the Second World War.
“By 1945, most armed forces had developed unofficial techniques for effective air-ground cooperation in the field. Such techniques did not resolve the basic doctrinal differences between air and ground components. These disputes persisted in peacetime long after the procedures for close air support were forgotten.” Thanks for watching, bye for now.